What Encyclopedia Britannica and The Dodo Have In Common

Encyclopedia Britannica is Out of Print

encyclopediaI still remember when my parents bought our family encyclopedia set form the door to door salesman in 1990. Who knew that just a few years later the company would layoff their entire sales force in 1996? After 244 years, Encyclopedia Britannica is no longer issuing its printed version at all. Hearing this news is somewhat disconcerting as a rare book auction seller. I can just see it now: Scores of consignors lining up to get my opinion of value for their Britannica sets and then arguing with me over the bad news that it’s still worthless at auction and in fact should be pulped immediately and made into books people actually want to read. It’s going to be the worst rush of junk books since our marketing guy placed the $30,000 Johnson’s Dictionary in a national ad and we got calls from everyone with a dictionary from coast to coast, none of them worth anything.  So, now that it’s gone, the big question is what’s it worth?

Honestly, I just can’t give modern encyclopedia sets away and anything later than 18th century is 99 out of 100 times recycle/trash. I used to be able to sell the 11th edition on India paper for around $50, when I first started in this business in 2006, but even that market has evaporated. Some people will find this set having sold recently for $300-600 at auction online. If these accounts are in fact true, then I recommend they find that auctioneer and take their encyclopedias there because I have never had that kind of luck. There are some other editions including the 9th, or 1st which also bring money, but these are exceedingly scarce.

Here are a couple rules to determine if your encyclopedia is valuable or should be sent to Africa where they are still used (no joke).

  • 21st century: It’s just a used book at this point, good luck finding a buyer knowing Britannica couldn’t…
  • 20th century encyclopedia, it’s probably trash.
  • 19th century encyclopedia, should be looked at by a pro or looked up online, but don’t be surprised if it’s garbage (1800’s is not old for a book).
  • 18th century and illustrated, probably worth some money, generally low value with few exceptions that will sell for real money. Basically you have a 50/50 shot.

A new set of Encyclopedia Britannica retails for around $1400 with about 4000 copies unsold from its last run in 2010. Before you rush out to buy your “collector’s item” consider this: It’s probably not going to appreciate in value for another 244 years. Otherwise, using the rules above, or send your set to a developing country where they are truly in demand for books over digital technology.

About Berkeley Brown
Anson Brown, co-founder and principal of Auction Exclusive, is an expert in rare books, prints, antique maps, historical manuscripts and autographs. He is also well versed in a variety of fine and decorative arts and antiques and has 7 years experience in the auction industry. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from George Mason University and and Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland.

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